Elon Musk says he could totally build an alternative mobile platform if it came down to it. To that we say, don’t threaten us with a good time, Elon.
Late on Friday, Musk replied to a tweet exhorting him to build his own phone in case Google and Apple decide to boot the Twitter app off their respective app stores.
Also read: The best 10 Twitter apps
“I certainly hope it does not come to that, but, yes, if there is no other choice, I will make an alternative phone,” answered the new owner of the bird app. The tweet prompted supportive comments from fans, but also a lot of derision from people in tech media.
Let’s back down a little and answer the big questions.
I certainly hope it does not come to that, but, yes, if there is no other choice, I will make an alternative phone
Why would Musk need an alternative to iPhone and Android?
Musk’s comment came after speculation in recent days that Apple and potentially Google could decide to kick Twitter off the App Store and the Play Store. There’s not much to support this speculation — the main fact that prompted it was the decision by Phil Schiller, head of marketing and the App Store at Apple, to deactivate his personal Twitter account.
We don’t know why Schiller deactivated his Twitter, but perhaps it has something to do with the firestorm of controversy that has engulfed the service since Musk took over. Highlights include chaotic layoffs, the botched blue-check-for-money rollout, the decision to reinstate Donald Trump and numerous others suspended accounts, and of course, Musk’s own tweeting, rife with conspiracy-theorist talking points.
Now, Phil Schiller’s decision may be a personal one. But more likely it’s a signal to Musk, who is in the process of trying to turn Twitter into a subscription service. This is important. Follow the money, as they say, and in this case the money goes from Twitter’s bank accounts into Apple’s.
When you go to war, it’s preferable not to depend on your enemy.
Under the terms of the App Store, Apple could demand a 15% to 30% cut out of all in-app purchase transactions on the Twitter app. In other words, those $8/month Musk has been demanding in exchange for a blue check? A couple of bucks could go to Apple. We say “could” because we don’t know if that’s actually the case — Apple has been inconsistent in applying its own rules when it comes to IAPs. It’s the same story with Google.
Obviously, Musk is not happy with the status quo, as he made clear in a tweet from a few weeks ago. Facing huge debt and an exodus of advertisers, Twitter can’t really afford to pay a massive Apple (or Google) tax.
And then there’s the content and reputation problem. Both Apple and Google have previously refused to allow apps that they deemed to be breaking their terms around hate speech and extremism. Parler and Gab are the best known examples. Under Musk, Twitter has seen a surge in speech that Apple or Google could deem a threat to their own reputation. It’s a stretch to say that Twitter is in danger of being booted out of the app stores, but even alluding to the idea is probably hurting the company.
In short, money and perception are the reasons why a war is brewing between Elon’s Twitter and Apple and Google. When you go to war, it’s preferable not to depend on your enemy. Hence this talk about making an alternative phone.
Could Musk make his own phone?
Yes! That’s actually pretty simple. It doesn’t take a whole lot to come up with a new smartphone. There are many companies out there that, for a fee, will build you a phone from scratch. A relatively small startup like Nothing can afford to come up with an interesting design and a few unique software features. Elon Musk, even saddled by the job of running three major companies, could pull it off with relative ease.
So why is it an empty threat then?
The problem is not the phone or even the operating system. The problem is the platform: OS + app store + ecosystem. Just ask Microsoft, Huawei, Samsung, or Amazon. All of these massively powerful corporations have tried and failed to build alternatives to the platforms owned by the Google-Apple duopoly. They poured tens of billions into their efforts, they hired the smartest people, and eventually they gave up or got nowhere.
In 2022, coming up with a new smartphone platform is the ultimate chicken-and-egg problem. For a new platform to be successful, you need apps. To get developers to build those apps, you need a successful platform. Sure, you can throw money at the problem like Huawei did when it was cut off from the Play Store. But the chances of making any sort of headway are slim.
if there is no other choice I will set yet more of my creditors’ money on fire and throw it into a wood chipper
It’s extra complicated when your chief rival also happens to own apps that most users consider must-haves. Why would Google help build an alternative to the Android/Play Store platform? Why would it build apps for a platform that will either crash and burn or grow into a dangerous competitor?
Musk would need to come up with a new phone (easy!), operating system (also easy, just fork Android), app store (a little more complicated), an ecosystem of desirable apps (very hard), and compelling alternatives to the apps and services offered by Google (extremely hard).
In other words, Musk would need to replicate everything that Google does with Android, the Play Store, and its suite of apps, and do it extremely rapidly (months, not years). And that’s just to get started.
Building a successful third mobile platform is not like building Tesla.
It’s true that Musk has a history of disrupting established, entrenched industries. But Tesla and SpaceX disrupted their industries through technical innovation, not platform building. And Musk’s track-record for managing big platforms is spotty so far. Just look at Twitter.
Building a successful third mobile platform is not like building Tesla. It’s more like building The Boring Company (remember that one?). It’s not about coming up with a phone or even an app store, just like The Boring Company is not about digging tunnels. It’s about building a hugely complex and expensive network from scratch, working with thousands of other stakeholders, competing against established infrastructure, and convincing regular people to use it. Which explains why the biggest thing The Boring Company has achieved so far is a rather boring tunnel beneath Las Vegas.
In the end, Elon Musk has demonstrated he won’t let others decide for him, for better or worse. There may very well be an Elon phone coming. It may even be a good one. But it won’t be a real alternative to Android or iPhone.